Shameful dereliction at the Mt. of Olives Cemetery

Acquiescence in the dereliction of a landmark of such central emotive importance to Jews blemishes Israel’s honor.

It’s a sad testament to an even sadder state of affairs that Diaspora Jews are feeling obliged to take action to preserve the Mount of Olives Cemetery, while successive Israeli governments have allowed lawlessness, vandalism and neglect to reign there.
An international watch-committee set up by overseas Jews hopes to reverse the desecration inflicted systematically by neighboring Arab vandals on the Jewish people’s most ancient burial ground – the final resting place of a veritable pantheon of religious, spiritual, cultural and national paragons, including the biblical prophets Zechariah, Haggai and Malachi.
The initiative was formally launched on Saturday night at Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue. It was triggered by a recent visit of members of the Lubinsky family of New York to relatives’ graves on the Mount. There, they noticed adjacent tombstones were wrecked, according to Menachem Lubinsky, with “the kind of maliciousness that defies the imagination.”
Stirred by what they witnessed, the family reached out to well-known Jews and Jewish organizations worldwide to set up a framework to keep an eye on the cemetery.
It’s not as if the sorry situation were unknown. Last December, the Prime Minister’s Office announced moves to heighten security there. In May, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss excoriated the ongoing neglect of the issue: “Repair work proceeds at snail’s pace, maintenance standards are inadequate, security is sorely lacking and vandalism and criminal acts continue unabated, accentuating the danger that funds and labor already invested at the site will go down the drain,” he said.
Many words and still more months later, little appears to have changed. Mourners are still stoned frequently near the cemetery and headstones are regularly defaced and smashed. This on the mountain slopes where Jews have been interring their dead for over 3,000 years. Its proximity to the Temple Mount, as well as the traditional proscription against burials within Jerusalem’s walls, made the Mount of Olives hallowed as far back as First Temple days.
The chain continued unbroken, save for 19 years of Jordanian occupation (1948-67), during which the cemetery was despoiled in a callous breach of the Hashemite Kingdom’s undertakings to safeguard holy places. The destruction was unbridled and premeditated. Ancient tombstones were ripped out to be used as latrine floors, urinal walls and pavement stones. The Intercontinental Hotel and Jericho Road were constructed over graves. Garbage was regularly dumped on the tombs.
After the Six Day War, when the area came under Israeli sovereign control, prominent Israelis like former prime minister Menachem Begin, Nobel laureate Shai Agnon, poet Uri Zvi Greenberg, and rabbis Shlomo Goren and Zvi Yehuda Kook asked to be laid to rest there. Nevertheless, this did not bring the necessary allocation of resources for upkeep and security at a cemetery of peerless historical continuity and significance.
The preferred target of the vandals, who recurrently raid after sundown, is enigmatically the Gerrer Rebbe’s grave, but Begin’s has also been damaged. Vandals have smeared human feces on tombs and deluged them with household rubbish and construction debris. Markers have been daubed in tar and paint. Hate-graffiti has been scrawled and gravestones have been hammered and shattered.
Because of the frequent daytime assaults on visitors, many fear going there. Vehicles are routinely stoned from the yard of a nearby Arab school in an especially dismal expression of enmity.
Had a minuscule proportion of such aggression occurred in Jewish cemeteries abroad, Israel would have lodged formal complaints and demanded better protection.
It is long overdue for the government to practice what we preach.
Official Israel should be shamed by the fact that private American Jews have had to recruit major Jewish organizations to take upon themselves what our government should have done long ago.
Fences, electronic surveillance, cameras and the like are frequently promised but have not yet been completed or installed. The government, Knesset committees and Jerusalem’s Municipality regularly announce impressive renovation projects to rebuild, record and map thousands of destroyed graves. The results fail to match the hype.
Acquiescence in the dereliction of a landmark of such central emotive importance to Jews blemishes Israel’s honor. It also makes a mockery of Israel’s declared aspiration to keep its capital undivided.